'Me too' founder to UI audience: 'It is a movement about survival'

'Me too' founder to UI audience: 'It is a movement about survival'

URBANA — Long before actress Alyssa Milano began encouraging people to use the hashtag "#MeToo" to stress standing in solidarity with victims of sexual harassment and assault, Tarana Burke coined the phrase "me too" and ultimately launched an international movement.

Burke, a woman who has dedicated her life to social justice and support for young women who have survived sexual violence, spoke Tuesday night at the University of Illinois' Foellinger Auditorium.

"'Me too' is about healing and the possibility of healing," she said.

Burke challenged the largely female audience to get involved with the movement against sexual harassment and assault.

"Inviting me to this school does not stop sexual violence on this campus," she said.

Born and raised in the Bronx borough of New York, Burke said she founded an anti-sexual-violence movement as part of her work helping kids in underprivileged communities.

Inspired after she bonded with a young girl at a youth camp who revealed that her mother's boyfriend had been abusing her, Burke said she has dedicated her life to focus on the well-being of young women.

On Tuesday night, Burke talked about meeting a 13-year-old junior high school girl standing on a curb after school.

"She told me, 'I'm waiting for my boyfriend.' She was in love. Pretty soon a car pulled out, and a 21-year-old man picked up this 13-year-old girl," she said. "I had to tell the seventh-grade girl, 'That's not a relationship. That's a crime.'"

Burke, senior director of programs at Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn, said she is a survivor of sexual assault.

"When I was 12 or 13, I needed someone to say I wasn't alone," she said.

When the hashtag #MeToo went viral last year, Burke said it appeared as part of more than 12 million Facebook posts within 24 hours.

"We are at a uniquely historic moment," she said. "If we don't turn this ship around right now and share the narrative about 'me too,' we will lose a golden opportunity to actually do something about sexual violence in this country."

She said the #MeToo movement is not a witch hunt.

"In fact, it is not a movement about men at all. It is a movement about survival. It is not about perpetrators."

She encouraged her audience to show support for men who are victims of sexual violence.

"When we call this a women's movement, we leave out so many people. We leave out men, and that's dangerous," she said. "I would venture to say that most men who use the hatchtag #MeToo are really survivors of child sexual abuse who have never had any outlet. Sexual violence happens to all people."

She challenged her audience to make the community less vulnerable to sexual violence.

"The solution should be built around you," she said.